Thursday, 5 December 2013

A Man of "Bold Temerity:" The Military Career of Quintus Petilius Cerialis

Quintus Petilius Cerialis, one of the most remarkable Roman soldiers of the 1st Century AD, seems to have been born or adopted into a well-connected aristocratic family in around 30 AD. When he came of age, his father - whether natural or adopted, arranged for him a marriage that would change his life - to Flavia Domitilla the Younger, daughter of the successful general and future Emperor, Vespasian.

Cerialis had the misfortune, in 60 or 61 AD, to lose a legion, the IX Hispana, whose commander he was in Britain. Rushing to the defence of Colchester when it was besieged by Boudicca and her rebels, his 6000-strong force was massacred, almost to a man, somewhere on the fields of Suffolk or Essex, and he was lucky to escape with his life. The loss of a legion might have been considered careless, but his "bold temerity" (as described by Tacitus in his Annals) was certainly considered preferable to the undue caution (some would say cowardice) of Poenius Postumus, the camp prefect of the II Augusta, who kept his men safe within their fort at Exeter. Postumus committed suicide, Cerialis was advanced.

By the time of Nero's assassination in 68 AD, Cerialis's wife, Domitilla, had died, possibly in childbirth (their daughter may or may not have been the Christian saint of the same name), but his connection with her father was undiminished. Taken as a hostage by the Emperor Vitellius, Cerialis escaped "in the guise of a peasant," joined up with Vespasian's forces and played a key role in their capture of Rome.

These were perilous times, however, for the Roman Empire. In northern Britain, a faction of the Brigantes took advantage of the chaos of the "Year of Four Emperors" to overthrow their Queen, Cartimandua, and rise up against the Romans. In Germania, similarly, a native prince, Civilis, who had served in the Roman army, staged a rebellion, centred around the modern town of Nijmegan in the Netherlands. Vespasian appointed Cerialis to lead the Roman force against Civilis.

The Conspiracy of Civilis, as portrayed by Rembrandt in 1661. The rebel leader is shown, anachronistically, in the robes and crown of a Carolingian prince. (Image is in the Public Domain).

Civilis captured the flagship of Cerialis's river-fleet, and laid siege to the Roman garrison town of Xanten.

Replica of a Roman river-ship of the Classis Germanica in Mainz. Photo: Martin Balumann (licensed under GNU).

Xanten, a reconstruction of the gate. Photo: Bernd_B (licensed under CCA).

Xanten, a reconstruction of the walls. Photo: Magnus Manske (licensed under GNU).

Conscious of an earlier Germanic rebellion, in which four legions had been lost, Vespasian had equipped Cerialis with overwhelming force. The assurances of success that Civilis had received from the Prophetess Veleda (whose story I shall tell on another day) counted for nothing.

Under Nero, a rebel commander in these circumstances could have expected torture and public execution. Vespasian, however, was keen to establish a new set of precedents. Like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, he understood the value of magnanimity in victory (although, in common with them also, he exercised it selectively). Cerialis was authorised to negotiate peace with Civilis. The terms of this peace are not known, but both Civilis and Veleda appear to have escaped with their lives.

The Prophetess Veleda, as imagined by Charles Voillemot. Image is in the Public Domain.

Cerialis was ready for the next challenge of his career, as Governor of Britain from 71 AD to 74 AD, and he would go on, ultimately, to achieve the highest office in Rome below that of Emperor, serving as Consul in 83 AD, alongside Vespasian's son, the Emperor Domitian.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and


  1. Mark- Cerialis is a very interesting character and I have a blog post coming soon about him, too, during my blog launch tour for After Whorl: Bran Reborn. As I wrote those next two novels in my Celtic Fervour series (Books 2 and 3) I had some trouble with my research on Cerialis. What I read didn't seem to attribute this particular governor of Britannia with enough advancement of the north. Of course, it has suited my imagination to credit Cerialis with a lot more northern fort building - though I also liked the notion that Frontinus also moved his troops north to areas thought to have been subdued by Agricola a few years later. As I researched, it seemed to me that the period between AD 71 and AD 84 is blurred in terms of which governor’s troops went where first! (read some degree of admitted confusion here on my part)

  2. It is blurred, Nancy - if only Cerialis had been as canny as Agricola in his choice of son-in-law, we might know more! Excavations of forts often reveal rather little - the Roman army was too efficient to leave chunks of its equipment lying around (Hadrian's Wall is the exception, because it was a long-term garrison rather than a short-term campaign fort). One of the enduring questions is what happened to Venutios: he disappears from the record as soon as Cartimandua is expelled. Where the history is blurred, I think we have full rein to make things up!